EVERYONE’S A KNIGHT TEMPLAR! WELL, MAYBE…

The enduring (or, some might say, irritatingly never-ending, though I’m not one of those!) romance/mystery/general interest about the Knights Templar seems to always take on another form or interpretation in the public eye, mainly through different media. There have been numerous books and articles written about the Order as well as television episodes and movies.

I first got interested in the Knights Templar while watching the 1984 first season episode of the British series ROBIN OF SHERWOOD titled “Seven Poor Knights of Acre.” Up to that point, I may have heard of the Templars but really didn’t know that much about them. In this particular episode, a golden seal of the Templars, depicting their “logo” of two knights riding on a horse, had been stolen and, of course, the Knights think Robin and the gang are the culprits.

ROBIN OF SHERWOOD is my favorite take on the Robin Hood legend. Lasting for three seasons and combining gritty period realism with added mystical elements, the show had high production qualities and great acting. Each episode was filmed on location and looked like mini-movies with very-detailed quality.

Interestingly, a 2009 book by author John Paul Davis titled “Robin Hood: The Unknown Templar” makes the case that Robin was a Templar himself. I’ve not read the book but it got some good reviews saying Davis makes a compelling argument for his hypothesis. If that’s true then, couldn’t other historical and, like Robin Hood, legendary figures, also have been Knights Templar? And, if so, why would it matter?

In the big scheme of things, it wouldn’t, but being a fan of secret organizations and historical mysteries, these kind of shadowy conjectures are always at the back of my mind when I’m writing. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I do love a good mystery, especially when it goes against the norm and shakes everything up.

There are some contemporary Templar organizations such as the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar, which is part of the Freemasons. As I mentioned in my previous post, there is some speculation the Knights Templar, in fact, became the Freemasons. Some Freemason groups, like the Grand Encampment, have divisions which include “Knights Templar” in their titled designation.

Some historical/political Freemasons included George Washington (whose George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, VA is a great place to visit!), Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell and Al Gore. Would this association possibly make them Templars as well? Intriguing, isn’t it?

As a result, such conjecture, speculation, etc., in my mind, gives me some leeway and artistic license to portray the Knights Templar as having been reborn into the 23rd Century in my serial novel, THE ENDGAME CHRONICLES. Hey, why not? These futuristic Knights Templar may possess the trappings of the old guard but they don’t necessarily follow the same precepts such as poverty and celibacy. They would have adopted the technology and mores of that future culture, working within and without the “system of that time to generate great power.

And, more importantly, to try to hold on to that power.

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THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR REVISITED

The Knights Templar (The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon), were religious warriors formed in 1119 after the First Crusade. Nine French knights, led by Hugues de Payens, took vows of poverty and chastity, and got together to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. After those early days, the Knights Templar grew into something else entirely–basically, a rich and powerful corporation.

The Templars have always held an interest and a fascination for many people, including me. They’ve long been a subject of discussions, books, papers, films, but after the runaway success of author Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where the Templars were mentioned in mysterious, historical (or not) context, the Knights Templar have resurfaced as a cultural phenomena.

Though a lot is known about the Templars historically, various myths about them abound (and, let’s face it, those are a lot more fun!)–they are the keepers of the Holy Grail, they still survive today as the Freemasons, they found and hid the Ark of the Covenant, even that they discovered America! Take that Vikings!

They are given credit, in fact, for creating the modern system of banking. Ironically, taking vows of poverty, the Templars eventually became one of the richest organizations in the Old World, who could lend money and buy property with ease. It got to the point, in just a short century, that governments depended on them to help finance certain projects. That’s considered one of the reasons King Phillip IV of France and Pope Pius V orchestrated the Templars’ downfall in 1307. The “impoverished” Knights were perceived as having become too rich and powerful (although most historians figure Phillip just wanted all that loot for himself) and turning against their vows and God.

The fall of the Templars is one of the origin stories attributed to the legend of Friday the 13th. On Friday, October 13th, 1307, most of the Templars throughout France were rounded up from their various castles, commanderies, perceptories and farms. Again, most, not all, were tortured to confess to false crimes, and burned at the stake for heresy (although one legend has it some escaped to become the Freemasons and to hide their legendary treasure, though no trace of whatever that treasure is has ever been found).

The heresy crimes included the worship of a god or demon called Baphomet. This is variously described as a disembodied head (possibly of John the Baptist!) of a goat, a horned demon, a skull, a cat, etc. It’s depicted as a winged, goat-headed human in certain decks of Tarot cards.

All nonsense, of course. But what if it wasn’t? One source I read described how the apocryphal Lilith (the Biblical Adam’s supposed first wife, according to some sources, and the lover of King Solomon) transformed, through her followers neglect, into the Baphomet. How cool and creepy is that? I used that idea in my first “Knights Templar in Outer Space” story, Crusade.

In my crazy future history, the Knights Templar have been reborn into the 23rd Century to become the Templar Accord. Their long war with the alien Kazoran Union is at a stalemate. Both sides are equal in numbers, strength and technology. But what if the Accord could discover and resurrect certain “artifacts”, which are not myths and legends but real? Including the Baphomet? The Union would have no defense against these ancient “weapons.” Or so the Accord hopes.

My new serial novel, The Endgame Chronicles, posted by chapter for free on the JukePop Serial website, posits that theory also. The Templar Accord, now serving a church of their own making, struggle to survive against their enemies. You can read about what happens after they discover an artifact long buried on a remote, backwater planet in an ancient tomb. They find out their “Endgame Initiative” may sound good on paper but even the best-laid plans can go horribly wrong. Yikes.

I’ve tried to capture the essence of the Knights Templar and their Code in my stories but have updated it to include female Knights and administrators (this is the 23rd century, after all). No vows of poverty exist and, especially, no vows of chastity. How boring would that be?

The first chapter is available to read free without a JukePop account, but you’ll have to create an account (also free with no obligations) to read any further. Let me know what you think!

http://www.jukepop.com/home/read/3471
http://inkfish1.wix.com/larryivkovichauthor

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GENE AUTRY: SEMINAL SCIENCE FICTION HERO

.Gene Autry, famous singing cowboy star of radio, television and the movies (and very successful and lucrative recorder of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”), may be the last name one thinks of when imagining adventurers of the sci-fi pulp era. If at all.

But the 1935 Saturday matinee serial, The Phantom Empire , one of Autry’s first forays into film, depicts him as exactly that. Starring as himself and singing in almost every one of the serial’s twelve episodes, Autry and his sidekicks fight evil of a futuristic, subterranean and very low-budget kind.

The opening credits for each episode identify Autry as “Radio’s Singing Cowboy.” Young costar Frankie Darro is listed next and would later portray Robbie the Robot in the classic sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet (1956). Even younger fourteen-year old costar Betsy Ross-King is described as “World Champion Trick Horse Rider,” which, apparently, she once was although you’ll be hard pressed to find any information about her, googling or otherwise.

And finally, in the first few episodes, the “Scientific City of Murania” is also credited as if it, too, was a character in the story. Constructed as a miniature set, Murania hosted futuristic-looking buildings, painted backdrops and flashing lights. Giant elevators ascend and descend to and from the surface accompanied by a funny un-theramin-like whistling sound. Scientific indeed.

Inhabited by citizens dressed in Roman-style togas and pointy hats, Murania also boasts giant robot servants who swing hammers and open doors a lot. As an interesting sidebar, these ridiculous looking mechanical men were taken out of storage from the set of the 1933 Clark Gable/Joan Crawford musical, Dancing Lady. Which begs the question: Could >Dancing Ladyalso be an early and influential work of science fiction cinema?

As the serial unfolds (complete with such ominous episode titles as “Jaws of Jeopardy,” “Prisoner of the Ray,” and “A Queen in Chains”), Autry is co-owner of the Radio Ranch. Darro and Ross-King play siblings whose father is Autry’s partner in running the ranch.

The two kids have formed a club called “The Junior Thunder Riders” (complete with clubhouse and secret periscope). The members wear capes and what look like buckets on their heads as they ride around on horses giving voice to their motto, “To the Rescue!”

Autry and his backup musicians must perform their live radio recordings every day at 2PM or, according to their contract, will lose the ranch. Sounds like someone needed to negotiate a little harder on that point.

As a result, this insidious line item conveniently sets up several cliff-hangers revolving around whether Autry will make it back in time to perform. Of course, he always does, a lot of the time with the help of the ever resourceful Junior Thunder Riders. And Radio Ranch is always saved. Or is it?

A couple of crooked scientists and their gang discover that there are large deposits of radium buried underneath Radio Ranch. Their plot is, of course, to dig up the valuable mineral and spirit it away so they can get rich. In the meantime, in an absolutely amazing coincidence, Murania (once part of the lost civilization of Mu) and its technologically superior inhabitants also reside 20,000 feet under the surface of Autry’s ranch and is the source of the radium!

Danger and non-stop action (and singing) and a lot of running around ensue as both the scientists and Murania’s evil Queen Tika strive to either capture or kill Autry for various reasons, none of which make much sense but do advance the story, such as it is.

It’s pretty obvious that The Phantom Empire, along with other movie serials of that time, was made strictly for juveniles. If you can get past the cheesy acting, dialog, costumes, special effects and the very irritating high-pitched voice of Ms. Ross-King, it can be an enjoyable time-waster. Of course, as Gene Autry got more and more successful, he was laughing all the way to the bank, radium or not.

Just ask Rudolph.

Speaking of serials – I’ve just posted the first chapter of a science fiction/horror serial on the JukePop Serial site – it’s free to read although you do have to create an account to read beyond the first chapter. Please check it out and let me know what you think. Thanks!

http://www.jukepop.com/home/read/3471

 

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ZOMBIES – A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP.

I’ve never been a big fan of the zombie genre. In my mind, if you’ve seen one zombie film, you’ve seen them all. Zombies shamble, or run these days, chasing humans for brains and other juicy body parts while the humans try to escape, hide or fight back. Now that’s a generalized statement, I know, but the whole “eating brains” and “zombie virus thing” kind of bores me.

At least it did. I’ve found, lately, my position is softening somewhat on that front. However, I still have some gripes.

Some of my main complaints are why do zombies have to eat? They’re dead! And if they eat, do they defecate and urinate also? Zombie poop–now there’s a subject for a scientific paper (which could have already been written. After all, the Department of Defense has a plan in case of a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s true – look it up. It even has categories for zombie chickens, magic zombies and vegetarian zombies. I kid you not although, to be fair, the whole thing was set up for testing purposes with “zombie” used as a  placeholder for who or whatever really might attack us. Still–zombie chickens? Uh huh.)

Also, why can’t we have zombies that can hold a conversation? Who can reason for a change? In fact, I have heard of some recent movies, TV shows and books which have these kinds of zombies, which I think is great. Some people complain about there being way too many vampires and werewolves in popular culture but at least there’s more depth to those types of characters because they can react in human ways while fighting against their animal natures and so on. Internal conflict, you know.

In the movie remake of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, they created an “uber-Morlock” played by none other than the great British actor Jeremy Irons, who was the brains behind the otherwise hive-like, brutish Morlocks. He could think rationally, converse, make evil plans. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Truthfully, I have watched a handful of zombie movies (have never seen the TV show, The Walking Dead ,though) and I’ve enjoyed them. I did see Night of the Living Dead back in the day and liked it but never thought of the effect and influence it would have on later writers and moviemakers. In my experience, the first virus-infected zombies (as opposed to the old Voodoo-raised zombies of old – think White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi in 1938) I ever saw were in the movie Twenty Eight Days Later, which was a terrific horror flick.

However, I argued with people, saying Twenty Eight Days Later and its’ sequel Twenty Eight Weeks Later weren’t zombie movies at all but movies about a virus which turned people into monstrous, mindless killers. Well, guess what? That’s what the definition of zombies had become by that time. One thing that was different about those movies, though, was it didn’t take a zombie bite to turn a human into a zombie. Just exposure to zombie saliva (yuck!) was enough as actor Robert Carlyle’s character found out in Twenty Eight Weeks Later when he kissed his wife who, though she was immune to the virus, was a carrier. The honeymoon was definitely over for them after that!

I guess what I’m saying is I’m not completely resistant to the zombie phenomenon anymore but hope it can evolve in more interesting and unusual ways. Some Steampunk novels like Dreadnought by Cherie Priest and The Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers contain zombie elements and both are characterized somewhat differently than the norm.

I’ve even started writing what I originally thought of as a series of “anti-zombie” short stories featuring a talking, reasoning zombi (with no “e”) of the old school type of Voodoo-reanimated undead controlled by a bokor, his sorcerer/master. To my complete surprise, it’s turned into an exceptionally enjoyable writing experience with the anti-zombie part of it becoming less and less of a concern for me. It’s just really fun to write!

I guess I’ll have to start binge-watching The Walking Dead next. But only for research purposes you understand, to prepare myself for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Yeah, that’s it.

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A PERSONAL STEAMPUNK ADVENTURE

I attended my first Steampunk convention two weekends ago in Parkersburg, WV. It was the debut VANDALIA CON organized and put on in the historic Blennerhasset Hotel in downtown Parkersburg. All proceeds went to a the West Virginia Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program & Bonnie’s Bus, state-wide programs that provide patient services for uninsured and underinsured West Virginia women. Good causes all around.

And the setting couldn’t have been better. The Blennerhasset Hotel was built in 1889 during the Gaslight Era during which money from coal and natural gas was flowing freely throughout West Virginia. Owned and operated back then by Harman and Margaret Blennerhasset, the hotel still sports an old-style elegance.

I’ve had a budding interest in Steampunk for a while, having read several short stories in the sub-genre over the years as well as a handful of novels including The Difference Engine from 1990 by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and, more recently, Dreadnought by Cherie Priest and The Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers. The 1960s television series, The Wild Wild West, is considered nascent Steampunk.

Though often simplistically described as “Victorian Science Fiction,” there is a distinction as Victorian science fiction, like the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, describes what could happen in the present world with a look toward the future. Steampunk offers more of alternate history scenarios which deal more with the past.

One of the things I find most interesting about Steampunk is the “Maker” aspect of it. Maker is the term given to those of the Steampunk persuasion who design and create clothes, gadgets, gizmos and art of all kinds with a Steampunk aspect. As a former art student (and holder of a BFA in Fine Art from West Virginia University), this really appeals to me. The Dealers’ Room at Vandalia Con was small but the artists and craftspeople exhibiting and selling there were first-rate.

From clothes, paintings, books, sculpture, jewelry, to film, music, and ‘mechanical’ arms, the wealth of talent and imagination was fantastic. Met a lot of interesting and fun people as well including well-known Steampunk writer, artist and Maker Thomas Willeford plus the director and cast of a remake of the 1932 film White Zombie which was reimagined with a Steampunk flair.

A few of my friends and fellow PARSEC members (the Pittsburgh Science Fiction and Fantasy Group) have long been aficionados of Steampunk. I’m still a beginner in this interesting sub-genre but my interest has been piqued enough to become more involved. At the con (which, unfortunately, I could only attend on Saturday), I wore a long-sleeve linen shirt, vest, jeans and work boots. Under duress, I did try on a bowler-style hat but it was too small for my big Alien-shaped head! So, that’s a start. J

My upcoming novel, Blood of the Daxas, contains some Steampunk elements like airships but is not true Steampunk, but more fantasy adventure. I just had a vision of a dragon battling an airship and went from there!

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Peter Jackson – the Gory Years

Sometimes greatness springs from the oddest beginnings. Not that those beginnings aren’t great but, well, different.

Famed writer/director Peter Jackson creating horror and splatter films? Say it ain’t so! But yes, Jackson wasn’t always the go-to guy for big budget epic movies. Everyone has to start somewhere, even award-winning artists. And sometimes, those humble beginnings become career landmarks themselves.

Bad Taste, Peter Jackson’s moviemaking debut (1987), is a far cry from his later, more serious projects Heavenly Creatures, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit movies and the King Kong remake. An unabashed gore/sci-fi comedy, Bad Taste was made over a four year period by Jackson, members of his family and friends during the evenings and on the weekends.

Jackson wrote, directed, produced and played two roles in the cinematic gorefest. Low budget, yes, but the special effects, makeup and, of course, gouting blood and splattering viscera, are very creative and well done. And did I mention that it’s funny? It has to be for laughing out loud at the sight gags and jokes takes your mind off of the stomach-churning violence being committed onscreen.

Shapeshifting aliens have landed on earth in their starship (which looks like an English manor house) and are harvesting humans for their intergalactic fast food franchises. What some fresh brains? Just lop of the top of some poor Earthling’s head and scoop them out with a spoon!

The hero, Derek, and his buddies discover this cosmic culinary conspiracy and, of course, try to stop it. A lot of blood is spilled, bodies ripped and torn and organs devoured before the end. Be prepared for the absolutely hilarious “drinking of the grog” scene and the “exploding sheep.” You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll gag.

Dead Alive, Jackson’s revolting third film (1992, again directed and co-written by him), is a zombie splatter comedy with even more blood and guts than its predecessor. Lionel’s mother hasn’t been feeling well and Lionel doesn’t understand why until Mom becomes a full-blown zombie thanks to the bite of a Sumatran Rat-Monkey.

As an added result, anyone then bitten by Mom becomes a zombie and then anyone bitten by those zombies become one and so on and so on, literally ad nauseum.

So, as more people are bitten and the zombie hordes swell, the besieged characters, from Lionel and his girlfriend, to a priest who, while executing deadly martial arts moves on a group of attacking undead, declares, “I kick ass for the Lord!” attempt to fight off the shambling scourge.

One of the final scenes has more fake blood in it than any other twenty horror films combined with Lionel literally slipping, sliding and practically swimming in it.

Neither movie is for kids or the faint of heart but definitely worth watching to see how a now respected filmmaker got his disgusting, vomit-inducing start and just how creative (and absurdly funny) one can be when limited to a shoestring budget.

Hey, it can happen to anyone.

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Werewolves: New Twists on an Old Monster Tale

In my novel, The Sixth Precept, there are genetically-modified hybrid creatures called Shadow-Trackers wreaking havoc. They’re part human and part dog, the dog part giving rise to their “tracker” sensibility and name. However, when visualizing and describing them, they came out pretty much as werewolves (who could talk and reason but were programmed to hunt). I’ve always had a soft spot for those full moon beasties so it was nice discovering a trio of movies which tried to put a little different spin the whole werewolf mythos.

Dog Soldiers

Dog Soldiers (2002), written and directed by Neil Marshall (who later went on to write and direct The Descent, Doomsday and The Centurion) pits a pack of werewolves against a military unit staging exercises in a remote area of the Scottish Highlands. Starring Sean Pertwee (son of actor Jon who portrayed the third Dr. Who) Dog Soldiers is a combination of gore, black humor and intense, violent action.

The story turns the werewolf mythos on its head by depicting not just one but several werewolves with the point-of-view focusing strictly on the humans being hunted (no touchy-feely, internal human persona vs. animal persona conflict here!). The struggles of the military unit’s members and the mysterious woman who helps them are front-and-center as they can either give in to fear or stand and fight the horror surrounding them.

Some elements of Aliens and Night of the Living Dead are evident in the film but the characterization and action elevate the movie above the usual “monster on the loose” story. And, refreshingly, the werewolves themselves are actors in makeup, not computer-generated.

Skinwalkers

Skinwalkers (2006 – not to be confused with the Tony Hillerman novel of the same name), directed by James Isaac and starring Jason Behr, Rhona Mitra and Elias Koteas, depicts a pack of dangerous werewolf bikers on the loose. They are “skinwalkers,” according to Navajo lore–humans who are able to change their forms into those of animals.

Opposing them are good skinwalkers who are trying to live their lives without killing. They do this by shackling themselves to the inside of their RV on the nights of the full moon. If they taste human blood for the first time, their animal nature will take over completely. And their human personas must remain intact in order to protect the one member of their family who has the power to end the werewolf curse once and for all–a 13 year-old boy who is half human and half skinwalker.

The expert werewolf facial makeup was done by the late, great Stan Winston, giving credence to the expression, “Less is More.” These werewolves really look bestial without the makeup effects being over-the-top or cheesy.

Underworld

The big budget entry of this trio of films, Underworld (2003), directed by Len Wiseman and starring Kate Beckinsdale, Scott Speedman and Bill Nighy, reimagines werewolves and vampires as rival gangs engaging in high-tech urban warfare. Stylishly cool and sexy, the film shows both groups adapting very well to the modern era. The vampires shoot bullets containing silver nitrate at the “Lycans” and the werewolves return fire to the “Death Dealers” with bullets that emit ultraviolet light. Both opposing groups utilize laptops, the internet and cell phones as tools in their centuries-long struggle.

In addition, the werewolves are trying to create a powerful vampire/werewolf hybrid to help them in their battle against the blood-suckers. They live beneath the city streets (the “underworld” of the title) while their vampire foes reside in luxurious mansions replete with state-of-the-art technology.

Oddly enough (with a couple of exceptions), the much bigger, more powerful Lycans get their behinds kicked in this film. Preferring to get down and dirty in their werewolf forms, most of them fall easy victims to the Death Dealers’ modern weaponry.

Stylized action sequences and an in-depth backstory on the ancient war between these two toothy groups give this film a little more substance than most run-of-the mill creature features.

At the end of the day, a werewolf is a werewolf is a werewolf, but kudos to those artists who won’t take the easy way out. Their imaginative slants on classic horror tropes make the old seem new again.

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